44. Sermon Text - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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44. Sermon Text

Special Service
Text:      Phil.4:21-23
“Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”


When we write letters we all probably have our own particular style. We will begin in one way and we will end in another. For many of us we will have learnt about this when we were children. You begin with “Dear...” and end with something like “with love...” Growing a bit older you might have struggled a bit more – life often seems to get more complicated as you grow older. Still, you keep the “dear...” at the beginning but it feels odd to write to the Tax Office and close with “all my love” so you hesitate is it “yours sincerely...” or should it be “yours faithfully...”?

There were letter writing conventions in the first century of the Christian era too. Paul was influenced by them but he didn’t follow them rigidly, in fact in some significant ways he developed a decidedly Christian way of letter writing. This is particularly true of the way in which he ended his letters and here his ending indicates a real warmth of affection existed in the Christian community.

In most of his letters Paul followed a regular pattern. He would begin with a greeting and express a desire for his readers to enjoy the spiritual blessings of grace and peace in their lives. Then, to bring his letters to a close, he would send another greeting and finally conclude with an apostolic blessing. It writing to the Christians in Philippi this was the pattern he followed.

So as we bring our studies in this part of Scripture to a close we’re going to consider some very simple and straightforward verses. We’re going to think about greetings and we’ll finish up with some thoughts about benedictions.

Greetings in the NT
I’d never done it before but during the week I decided to look up all the verses that referred contained the words greet or greetings that I could find in the NT – there are in the region of 60 of them in total. You won’t be surprised when I tell you that almost all of them are positive in nature. You won’t be surprised because you will generally respond well to someone sending you greetings. If I’m told that someone sends me their greetings it makes me feel good as it indicates that the other person is thinking about me warmly. And so we usually we like to receive greetings. To greet someone really means to treat them with affection.

Now of course we humans can easily make a mess of things and we can do that with greetings too. I have discovered that we can do that in at least three different ways.

The first and worst example would be that of Judas Iscariot: do you remember how he betrayed Jesus? Here is how Matthew recorded it:

Mt.26:49 “And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him.”

The words and the gesture should have conveyed warmth and affection but Judas didn’t mean that, instead he used them to conceal hatred and greed. The greetings he expressed weren’t genuine and warm at all.

The second way the NT refers to the way in which we can make a mess of greetings is when we develop a great desire to receive greetings in a way that flatters our personal pride. Such a desire can affect the very way we behave as we attempt to draw the attention of others. Jesus warned his listeners to be wary of such folk:

Mk.12:38-40 “And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

The final way I found was that greetings can be expressed in too limited and restricted a manner. We can even imagine we are behaving in a praiseworthy way as we do so. Once again it was Jesus who pointed out the mistake:

Mt.5:47 “And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

Happily, however, the positive aspect of greeting dominates in the NT and we would do well not to pass over this too quickly thinking that it is all too easy.

When we read our way through the gospels and pay attention to how Jesus related to the many and varied individuals we find that he was indeed gentle and lowly – he had time for those who were suffering and for those who were troubled, those whom perhaps the rest of society would have preferred to ignore. So we’re not surprised to find that Jesus not only issued instructions about greetings he greeted people himself. The word is specifically applied to him on just one occasion, early in the morning after the resurrection had taken place. The women had gone to the tomb and found it empty. Then an angel explained to them what had happened and they left with their emotions all mixed up. Matthew continues his account:

Mt.28:9 “And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.”

You can imagine how encouraging that greeting was on the ears of those ladies that day!

And as the early church developed and spread the sharing of greetings continued to impart encouragement. As the church expanded beyond the Jewish community and Gentiles were added tensions began to develop. The future of the church was threatened and the church leaders gathered in Jerusalem to seek a resolution and a peaceful way forward. After serious discussions had taken place the Council came to a conclusion which was designed to secure the harmony and unity of this growing body of believers. The results of this important gathering were shared by letter. Luke tells us how that letter began and how it was received:

Acts 15:23 “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.” Cf. v.31 “And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.”

Here it is apparent that the simple sending of greetings carries real weight and is very helpful. There are other occasions too in the Acts where meetings and greetings go hand in glove as the Lord’s people show affection and concern for one another.

Greetings Play an Important Role in Paul’s Ministry
I’ve already referred to the normal pattern that Paul followed in his letters of both beginning and ending with greetings and it is time for us to investigate that a bit more carefully.

Earlier in the service we read from Paul’s letter to the Romans and at the time you might have wondered quite why. I hope that the reason has become clearer because in Rom.16 Paul was at pains to pass on his own greetings to a long list of individuals. Let remind you of some of their names:

Prisca and Aquila... Epaenetus... Mary... Andronicus and Junia... Ampliatus... Urbanus... Stachys...Apelles... the family of Aristobulus... Herodion... family of Narcissus... Tryphaena and Tryphosa... Persis... Rufus... Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them.... Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.

Most of these folk we know next to nothing about for this is the only time that they are mentioned in the whole Bible. You could react, I suppose, by asking why bother with recording so many names of otherwise anonymous individuals but you’d do better to view this another way. How important the ordinary, largely unknown, little people are to our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, for he ensures that the names of some of the many millions of little people are recorded in the pages of Holy Scripture. Most of these people will be forgotten to the world – I doubt that many of us would be able to recall the names of many of them even now – but God has not forgotten them, Jesus shed his blood for them and hasn’t forgotten them. What must the value of such an individual soul be! And with that as our perspective we can start to appreciate just why it was that Paul wanted to have his greetings passed onto them.

What is more Paul was not alone in this – although the list might be shorter there is nevertheless an significant number who want to be remembered to the church in Rome too:

Rom.16:21-23 Timothy... Lucius and Jason and Sosipater... Tertius... Gaius... Erastus... Quartus...

Paul even goes so far as to say “all the churches” send their greetings! Rom.16:16

While Paul’s list in Rom.16 might seem a bit extreme it is not the only example. At the end of Colossians he does a similar thing though his list is shorter. And there is more of the same at the end of 2Tim.4 perhaps the last letter that the apostle wrote.

So you can see that the way in which Paul ends his letter to the Philippians with greetings is by no means exceptional. Let’s look at his words again and then we’ll make some comments about them:

Phil.4:21-22 “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.”

As Paul reaches the end of his letter he writes to the Philippians that there are three distinct groups who want to send them their warm Christian greetings.

Firstly, there is Paul himself. It may well be that Paul was expecting his letter to be read to begin with by “the overseers and deacons” who are addressed in the opening verse of the letter. But it is very clear that it is not a letter to be reserved for the leadership:

               “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus” says Paul.

Paul is not asking the Philippians to greet one another. Though you might be tempted to read it that way there are other ways he could have said it if that was his meaning eg. “greet one another” which is a phrase he did actually employ on a number of occasions and of which we’ll see a couple of examples shortly. No, Paul isn’t talking about mutual greeting here, rather he is asking to be remembered to the individual Christians who together make up the church congregation, he wants all to feel concerned and he doesn’t want any to be left out. This is not quite the same thing as saying in a more general way “I greet you all” which could leave some perhaps feeling excluded. No, each member is to be greeted!

The importance of this can be underlined when we remember that the church was experiencing a certain amount of tension. Euodia and Syntyche had had their falling out and when Paul wrote the issue hadn’t yet been resolved. Now when there are issues like that people will often take sides and cracks begin to appear which risk destroying the unity of the fellowship. Insisting on his greeting being passed on to each member means that Paul is deliberately refusing to take sides – he treats each member as important whatever position they might adopt on such tensions which were certainly not matters of doctrinal importance.

There are congregations where some folk refuse to talk to others and certainly won’t go out of their way to greet them. And this is not how it should be in the church of Jesus Christ. We like to think of ourselves as a welcoming church – we’ve got that written on our notice-board outside the building – and I hope we are but we must be “greetings” church too. Expressing warmth and affection to those who are regularly amongst us as well as to those who pop in to briefly visit us.

Now we don’t necessarily have to do it the French of greeting everyone present with a kiss – though  such a practice might look to some to be in harmony with Scripture:

2Cor.13:12 “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
1Thess.5:26 “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.”

We might not find a literal interpretation of those verses to be appropriate in our culture but if we don’t we must find other ways of expressing a genuine warmth and friendliness, we daren’t simply ignore the true meaning of these Scriptures.

When we lived in France one of the differences we discovered in church practice was the way people greeted others when they arrived for a meeting and how they left one too. And I’m not talking about kissing. We all tend to think our own way is right – sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Others may do things differently and there is usually a reason for it. We would arrive and courageously say “Bonjour, tout le monde” Hello, everyone. But the Frenchman or woman would go to each person present and individually greet them. At the end of a moment we would often try to slip quietly away until we discovered that the French even had a phrase that described such behaviour: “filer à l’anglaise”. It means to slip away in the English way of not saying anything. Dictionaries translate the expression as “to take French leave” to leave without permission. It’s interesting how both the English and the French criticise each other’s behaviour with a bit of gentle name calling!

Now of course it is possible to mouth words of greeting without expressing any warmth or sincerity but not to speak at all is hardly more commendable!

Having thought about Paul we come, secondly, to think about the second group:

“The brothers who are with me greet you.”

These brothers were probably Paul’s ministry partners while he was kept under surveillance in Rome. They stood with Paul, helping to meet his needs and continuing to carry on the ministry work that Paul was most concerned about. They may well have been in prison with him. And now when they knew Paul was writing to the Christians in Philippi they wanted to send their own greetings along with those of the apostle Paul. Did they know the Philippians? That we don’t know but they had certainly heard about them. Perhaps they had heard Paul talk about them, pray for them and they realised these were genuine Christians and they too felt a warm and genuine concern for the Philippians.

It is doubtless easier to send greetings to someone you know personally even if your meeting with them was only a brief one. But it is possible for genuine heart-felt concern to develop for people you’ve never met. In the missionary prayer meeting we pray regularly for folk we’ve never met but the more we pray and hear their news the more engaged we become. Don’t skip too quickly past the missionary items in Sunnyhill Stays Together – slow down and pray and the next time you hear about the same people you can pray again. Perhaps we ought to think more seriously about how we send our gifts to our missionary friends: perhaps instead of making our treasurer do the work alone we ought to sign a accompany our gifts sending with them our greetings. I know having been a missionary in the past how that would have touched me.

Moving on we come to the third group:

“All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.”

One group with a smaller subset is included now and they too want to send their greetings. Do you remember back to the first chapter? There were people in the Roman Christian community who seemed to have it in for the apostle. Some of them were preaching the gospel with the specific aim of making life more difficult for him – it hardly seems credible but that was the situation. But look at what Paul now says:

“All the saints...”

He doesn’t pass on the greetings of just some but generously passes on greetings from all the Christians in Rome. How easy it would have been for him to make a distinction between those for him and those against but he refuses. What an example!

In fact the only distinction that Paul does make singles out certain Christians in Rome who have perhaps a particular connection with those in Philippi:

               “especially those of Caesar’s household.”

The reference is probably not to members of the Roman aristocracy, relatives or members of Caesar’s house, but rather to those folk who worked for the household. This group would have included freed slaves and others who were now working in the civil service of their day helping to keep the empire running. It probably included a number of retired military personnel too.

And if you’re wondering why they had a special interest in the Christians in Philippi here are some suggestions:

Philippi was a Roman colony – a little Rome away from Rome and there would have been considerable contact between them.

Philippi was a place where retired soldiers were settled in positions of prestige and influence and some of them were probably involved in the civil service as it functioned in Philippi.

Work contacts, perhaps personal contacts in the past and sharing in similar responsibilities.

Any or all of these would have led to interest and genuine concern developing which is now warmly expressed in the sending of greetings.

And what an encouragement to the Christians in Philippi to receive such greetings! To know that others operating in the same civil service were believers! God’s kingdom, the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was growing even in the corridors of power right at the heart of the empire in Caesar’s own household!

What joy we have give in learning to greet other Christians and send our greetings to them. While preparing this sermon I interrupted my studies twice to put it into practice myself. One phone call to a friend currently undergoing cancer treatment and another to a past member of this church who now lives down in Sidmouth. With the latter she asked for her greetings to be passed on to you too!

What good things can be achieved and with such little expenditure of effort! All we need is just a bit more thoughtfulness and willingness and we not only bring encouragement and help to others we also receive joy and blessing in return.

A Closing Benediction
Well, we’re nearly done but Paul has just one more thing to do. He wants to pronounce a benediction upon the Christian friends he loves in Philippi and the best way he can do so is to direct them to Jesus:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

Paul began his letter with Jesus. He told us that for him to live was all about Christ and it would only get better when he died for that would be real gain for him. Throughout his letter he wrote about this Jesus who had become so precious to him and along the way he gave us some of the most inspiring verses about the Lord that are contained in the entire Bible. He told us that with such a Lord he had learned to be content whatever life might throw in his direction. Paul experienced great joy in serving this Lord and he believed the Philippian Christians could too.

But what was the secret of it all? Well it was an open secret – it was all possible because of grace, it was all possible because of this unmerited favour of God. And so Paul brought his letter to a close by expressing his ardent desire that the Philippians to a man might know this grace and to know it more and more.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with our spirit too!

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